Bruce Arthur, a loyal MR reader, writes to me:
I grew up in a Polish immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, where I was raised on a diet high in seafood. My mother was raised close to the Baltic Sea and we weekly went to the local grocery store and bought a lot of salmon, halibut, sea bass, and scallops. I thought it was absolutely delicious. Sometimes we went to local ethnic grocery stores (generally Italian, the Italians had lived in the neighborhood before the Poles came and still ran a lot of businesses) and bought fish that was whole rather than filleted.
When I went off to college, I encountered people from the East Coast for the first time in my life, and I was shocked to learn that they did not believe that good seafood could possibly exist far away from an ocean coast. They would say things like “I would never eat fish in the Midwest, I wouldn’t trust it!’, which, as an 18 year old who was very much alive after eating a lot of fish in the Midwest, I found absurd.
After all, I thought, isn’t most seafood globally sourced these days? Few of our common food fishes are actually native to the Atlantic Coast, and if you’re flying fish in from the Pacific Northwest, South America, or Oceania, it seems to me that it should be least fresh on the East Coast, which is the part of America furthest away from where these fish are actually caught.
Of course, there could be other factors. Perhaps fish is freshest not closest to the ocean, but in denser areas – if everything is closer together, the places where fish is bought and eaten are presumably closer to the site of its first arrival in the area. Perhaps there’s a cultural factor: fish wasn’t always globally sourced, so perhaps coastal areas have more fish tradition that results in a higher quality of food. But surely the historic high rate of movement within (and into) America weakens that effect.
Anyway, I’m wondering if you have any insight into this. Am I right to scoff at regional seafood snobs, or do they have a point?
The more important reality is that hardly any regions in the United States have good indigenous seafood these days and thus no relative snobbery is justified. Maine lobster or catfish in parts of the south might be exceptions, and in neither case does the Alchian and Allen theorem hold (i.e., the highest quality goods remain those closest to the source).
In general regional demand effects are strong, as I argue in An Economist Gets Lunch. People outside of southern Ohio don’t understand good Cincinnati chili and so they don’t get it. The ingredients can in fact be transferred to North Carolina but they aren’t, least of all with the proper applications. A lot of good Sichuan dishes can be reproduced reasonably well in the United States, but you don’t get them until the properly demanding clientele is in place (by the way Gourmet Kingdom in Carrboro, NC is excellent). Who amongst us is a properly demanding judge of asam laksa? And so on. One interesting feature of these equilibria is that regional mobility does not seem to undo them. If you move to southern Ohio, you can rather rapidly become a standard bearer of good taste in chili, but you slack off once you are back in northern Virginia.